Aristotle: Ethics | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
ἀρετή | student online philosophy journal. 2. Verbally What is of most interest here is not the relationship that Aristotle draws between reason and the We see then that habituation regards and is relevant only to the moral virtues. One can. Is it possible for a person to acquire virtues of character solely by reading books and/or attending lectures on ethical “Cultivating Sentimental Dispositions Through Aristotelian Habituation.” © Copyright Paideusis: Journal of the Canadian Philosophy of Education Society. II. The dual role social relationships. Of course. Aristotle follows Socrates and Plato in taking the virtues to be central to a well- lived life. Only the Nicomachean Ethics discusses the close relationship . to love when one is a child, and having been properly habituated.
The trouble, as so often in these matters, is the intrusion of Latin. Socrates makes the point that knowledge can never be a mere passive possession, stored in the memory the way birds can be put in cages. Some translators make Aristotle say that virtue is a disposition, or a settled disposition.
This is much better than calling it a "habit," but still sounds too passive to capture his meaning. John's College, in which he asked his audience to imagine what it would be like if we had to teach children to speak by deliberately and explicitly imparting everything they had to do. We somehow set them free to speak, and give them a particular language to do it in, but they--Mr.
Wilson called them "little geniuses"--they do all the work. John's has thought about the kind of learning that does not depend on the authority of the teacher and the memory of the learner. In Plato's image we draw knowledge up out of ourselves; in Aristotle's metaphor we settle down into knowing. In neither account is it possible for anyone to train us, as Gorgias has habituated Meno into the mannerisms of a knower. Habits can be strong but they never go deep.
Authentic knowledge does engage the soul in its depths, and with this sort of knowing Aristotle links virtue. The word "disposition" by itself he reserves for more passive states, easy to remove and change, such as heat, cold, and sickness. He confirms this identity by reviewing the kinds of things that are in the soul, and eliminating the feelings and impulses to which we are passive and the capacities we have by nature, but he first discovers what sort of thing a virtue is by observing that the goodness is never in the action but only in the doer.
This is an enormous claim that pervades the whole of the Ethics, and one that we need to stay attentive to. No action is good or just or courageous because of any quality in itself. Virtue manifests itself in action, Aristotle says, only when one acts while holding oneself in a certain way. The indefinite adverb is immediately explained: It is not some inflexible adherence to rules or duty or precedent that is conveyed here, but something like a Newton's wheel weighted below the center, or one of those toys that pops back upright whenever a child knocks it over.
This stable equilibrium of the soul is what we mean by having character. It is not the result of what we call "conditioning. Skinner, the psychologist most associated with the idea of behavior modification, that a class of his once trained him to lecture always from one corner of the room, by smiling and nodding whenever he approached it, but frowning and faintly shaking their heads when he moved away from it.
That is the way we acquire habits. We slip into them unawares, or let them be imposed on us, or even impose them on ourselves. A person with ever so many habits may still have no character. Habits make for repetitive and predictable behavior, but character gives moral equilibrium to a life. The difference is between a foolish consistency wholly confined to the level of acting, and a reliability in that part of us from which actions have their source.
It should now be clear though, that the habit cannot be any part of that character, and that we must try to understand how an active condition can arise as a consequence of a passive one, and why that active condition can only be attained if the passive one has come first.
So far we have arranged three notions in a series, like rungs of a ladder: What we need to notice now is that there is yet another rung of the ladder below the habits. We all start out life governed by desires and impulses.
Unlike the habits, which are passive but lasting conditions, desires and impulses are passive and momentary, but they are very strong. Listen to a child who can't live without some object of appetite or greed, or who makes you think you are a murderer if you try to leave her alone in a dark room.
How can such powerful influences be overcome? To expect a child to let go of the desire or fear that grips her may seem as hopeless as Aristotle's example of training a stone to fall upward, were it not for the fact that we all know that we have somehow, for the most part, broken the power of these tyrannical feelings.
We don't expel them altogether, but we do get the upper hand; an adult who has temper tantrums like those of a two-year old has to live in an institution, and not in the adult world. But the impulses and desires don't weaken; it is rather the case that we get stronger. Aristotle doesn't go into much detail about how this happens, except to say that we get the virtues by working at them: The latter word, that can be translated as being-at-work, cannot mean mere behavior, however repetitive and constant it may be.
It is this idea of being-at-work, which is central to all of Aristotle's thinking, that makes intelligible the transition out of childhood and into the moral stature that comes with character and virtue. The moral life can be confused with the habits approved by some society and imposed on its young. John's College still stand up at the beginning and end of Friday-night lectures because Stringfellow Barr -- one of the founders of the current curriculum -- always stood when anyone entered or left a room.
What he considered good breeding is for us mere habit; that becomes obvious when some student who stood up at the beginning of a lecture occasionally gets bored and leaves in the middle of it.
In such a case the politeness was just for show, and the rudeness is the truth. Why isn't all habituation of the young of this sort? When a parent makes a child repeatedly refrain from some desired thing, or remain in some frightening situation, the child is beginning to act as a moderate or brave person would act, but what is really going on within the child?
I used to think that it must be the parent's approval that was becoming stronger than the child's own impulse, but I was persuaded by others in a study group that this alone would be of no lasting value, and would contribute nothing to the formation of an active state of character.
What seems more likely is that parental training is needed only for its negative effect, as a way of neutralizing the irrational force of impulses and desires. We all arrive on the scene already habituated, in the habit, that is, of yielding to impulses and desires, of instantly slackening the tension of pain or fear or unfulfilled desire in any way open to us, and all this has become automatic in us before thinking and choosing are available to us at all.
This is a description of what is called "human nature," though in fact it precedes our access to our true natural state, and blocks that access. This is why Aristotle says that "the virtues come about in us neither by nature nor apart from nature" a, What we call "human nature," and some philosophers call the "state of nature," is both natural and unnatural; it is the passive part of our natures, passively reinforced by habit. Virtue has the aspect of a second nature, because it cannot develop first, nor by a continuous process out of our first condition.
But it is only in the moral virtues that we possess our primary nature, that in which all our capacities can have their full development. The sign of what is natural, for Aristotle, is pleasure, but we have to know how to read the signs. Things pleasant by nature have no opposite pain and no excess, because they set us free to act simply as what we are b,and it is in this sense that Aristotle calls the life of virtue pleasant in its own right, in itself a, A mere habit of acting contrary to our inclinations cannot be a virtue, by the infallible sign that we don't like it.
Our first or childish nature is never eradicated, though, and this is why Aristotle says that our nature is not simple, but also has in it something different that makes our happiness assailable from within, and makes us love change even when it is for the worse. And the road to these virtues is nothing fancy, but is simply what all parents begin to do who withhold some desired thing from a child, or prevent it from running away from every irrational source of fear.
They make the child act, without virtue, as though it had virtue. Assume a virtue if you have it not. That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat Of habits evil, is angel yet in this, That to the use of actions fair and good He likewise gives a frock or livery, That aptly is put on.
Refrain tonight, And that shall lend a kind of easiness To the next abstinence; the next more easy; For use almost can change the stamp of nature Hamlet is talking to a middle-aged woman about lust, but the pattern applies just as well to five-year-olds and candy. We are in a position to see that it is not the stamp of nature that needs to be changed but the earliest stamp of habit. We can drop Hamlet's "almost" and rid his last quoted line of all paradox by seeing that the reason we need habit is to change the stamp of habit.
A habit of yielding to impulse can be counteracted by an equal and opposite habit. This second habit is no virtue, but only a mindless inhibition, an automatic repressing of all impulses. Nor do the two opposite habits together produce virtue, but rather a state of neutrality. Habituation thus does not stifle nature, but rather lets nature make its appearance. The description from Book VII of the Physics of the way children begin to learn applies equally well to the way human character begins to be formed: We noticed earlier that habituation is not the end but the beginning of the progress toward virtue.
If the human soul had no being-at-work, no inherent and indelible activity, there could be no such moral stature, but only customs. But early on, when first trying to give content to the idea of happiness, Aristotle asks if it would make sense to think that a carpenter or shoemaker has work to do, but a human being as such is inert.
His reply, of course, is that nature has given us work to do, in default of which we are necessarily unhappy, and that work is to put into action the power of reason.
Later, Aristotle makes explicit that the irrational impulses are no less human than reasoning is. Responsible human action depends upon the combining of all the powers of the soul: These are all things that are at work in us all the time. Good parental training does not produce them, or mold them, or alter them, but sets them free to be effective in action.
This is the way in which, according to Aristotle, despite the contributions of parents, society, and nature, we are the co-authors of the active states of our own souls b, The Mean Now this discussion has shown that habit does make all the difference to our lives without being the only thing shaping those lives and without being the final form they take. Quantitative relations are so far from any serious human situation that they would seem to be present only incidentally or metaphorically, but Aristotle says that "by its thinghood and by the account that unfolds what it is for it to be, virtue is a mean.
Cowardice is -3 while Rashness is In our number language Those who do not sink this low might think instead that Aristotle is praising a kind of mediocrity, like that found in those who used to go to college to get "gentlemen's C's.
Aristotle points out twice that every moral virtue is an extreme a, but he keeps that observation secondary to an over-riding sense in which it is a mean. Could there be anything at all to the notion that we hone in on a virtue from two sides? The protagonist is not a human being, but a border collie named Nop. The author describes the way the dog has to find the balance point, the exact distance behind a herd of sheep from which he can drive the whole herd forward in a coherent mass.
When the dog is too close, the sheep panic and run off in all directions; when he is too far back, the sheep ignore him, and turn in all directions to graze. While in motion, a good working dog keeps adjusting his pace to maintain the exact mean position that keeps the sheep stepping lively in the direction he determines. Now working border collies are brave, tireless, and determined.
- Aristotle's Ethics
They have been documented as running more than a hundred miles in a day, and they love their work. There is no question that they display virtue, but it is not human virtue and not even of the same form. Some human activities do require the long sustained tension a sheep dog is always holding on to, an active state stretched to the limit, constantly and anxiously kept in balance.
Running on a tightrope might capture the same flavor. But constantly maintained anxiety is not the kind of stable equilibrium Aristotle attributes to the virtuous human soul.
I think we may have stumbled on the way that human virtue is a mean when we found that habits were necessary in order to counteract other habits. This does accord with the things Aristotle says about straightening warped boards, aiming away from the worse extreme, and being on guard against the seductions of pleasure. Alone, either of them is a vice, according to Aristotle. The glutton, the drunkard, the person enslaved to every sexual impulse obviously cannot ever be happy, but the opposite extremes, which Aristotle groups together as a kind of numbness or denial of the senses b, 8miss the proper relation to bodily pleasure on the other side.
It may seem that temperance in relation to food, say, depends merely on determining how many ounces of chocolate mousse to eat. Aristotle's example of Milo the wrestler, who needs more food than the rest of us do to sustain him, seems to say this, but I think that misses the point. The example is given only to show that there is no single action that can be prescribed as right for every person and every circumstance, and it is not strictly analogous even to temperance with respect to food.
What is at stake is not a correct quantity of food but a right relation to the pleasure that comes from eating. Suppose you have carefully saved a bowl of chocolate mousse all day for your mid-evening snack, and just as you are ready to treat yourself, a friend arrives unexpectedly to visit. Why then should we not say the same about at least some of the emotions that Aristotle builds into his analysis of the ethically virtuous agent?
Why should we experience anger at all, or fear, or the degree of concern for wealth and honor that Aristotle commends? These are precisely the questions that were asked in antiquity by the Stoics, and they came to the conclusion that such common emotions as anger and fear are always inappropriate.
Aristotle assumes, on the contrary, not simply that these common passions are sometimes appropriate, but that it is essential that every human being learn how to master them and experience them in the right way at the right times.
A defense of his position would have to show that the emotions that figure in his account of the virtues are valuable components of any well-lived human life, when they are experienced properly. Perhaps such a project could be carried out, but Aristotle himself does not attempt to do so.
This term indicates that Aristotle sees in ethical activity an attraction that is comparable to the beauty of well-crafted artifacts, including such artifacts as poetry, music, and drama. He draws this analogy in his discussion of the mean, when he says that every craft tries to produce a work from which nothing should be taken away and to which nothing further should be added b5— A craft product, when well designed and produced by a good craftsman, is not merely useful, but also has such elements as balance, proportion and harmony—for these are properties that help make it useful.
Similarly, Aristotle holds that a well-executed project that expresses the ethical virtues will not merely be advantageous but kalon as well—for the balance it strikes is part of what makes it advantageous.
The young person learning to acquire the virtues must develop a love of doing what is kalon and a strong aversion to its opposite—the aischron, the shameful and ugly.
Determining what is kalon is difficult b28—33, a24—30and the normal human aversion to embracing difficulties helps account for the scarcity of virtue b10— These doctrines of the mean help show what is attractive about the virtues, and they also help systematize our understanding of which qualities are virtues.
Once we see that temperance, courage, and other generally recognized characteristics are mean states, we are in a position to generalize and to identify other mean states as virtues, even though they are not qualities for which we have a name.
Aristotle remarks, for example, that the mean state with respect to anger has no name in Greek b26—7.Aristotle on Education and Ethics (Nicomachean Ethics book 10) - Philosophy Core Concepts
Though he is guided to some degree by distinctions captured by ordinary terms, his methodology allows him to recognize states for which no names exist. So far from offering a decision procedure, Aristotle insists that this is something that no ethical theory can do. His theory elucidates the nature of virtue, but what must be done on any particular occasion by a virtuous agent depends on the circumstances, and these vary so much from one occasion to another that there is no possibility of stating a series of rules, however complicated, that collectively solve every practical problem.
This feature of ethical theory is not unique; Aristotle thinks it applies to many crafts, such as medicine and navigation a7— Aristotle thinks of the good person as someone who is good at deliberation, and he describes deliberation as a process of rational inquiry. A standard or measure is something that settles disputes; and because good people are so skilled at discovering the mean in difficult cases, their advice must be sought and heeded. Although there is no possibility of writing a book of rules, however long, that will serve as a complete guide to wise decision-making, it would be a mistake to attribute to Aristotle the opposite position, namely that every purported rule admits of exceptions, so that even a small rule-book that applies to a limited number of situations is an impossibility.
He makes it clear that certain emotions spite, shamelessness, envy and actions adultery, theft, murder are always wrong, regardless of the circumstances a8— Although he says that the names of these emotions and actions convey their wrongness, he should not be taken to mean that their wrongness derives from linguistic usage.
He defends the family as a social institution against the criticisms of Plato Politics II. He is not making the tautological claim that wrongful sexual activity is wrong, but the more specific and contentious point that marriages ought to be governed by a rule of strict fidelity.
Similarly, when he says that murder and theft are always wrong, he does not mean that wrongful killing and taking are wrong, but that the current system of laws regarding these matters ought to be strictly enforced. So, although Aristotle holds that ethics cannot be reduced to a system of rules, however complex, he insists that some rules are inviolable. This is why Aristotle often talks in term of a practical syllogism, with a major premise that identifies some good to be achieved, and a minor premise that locates the good in some present-to-hand situation.
At the same time, he is acutely aware of the fact that reasoning can always be traced back to a starting point that is not itself justified by further reasoning. Neither good theoretical reasoning nor good practical reasoning moves in a circle; true thinking always presupposes and progresses in linear fashion from proper starting points. And that leads him to ask for an account of how the proper starting points of reasoning are to be determined.
Practical reasoning always presupposes that one has some end, some goal one is trying to achieve; and the task of reasoning is to determine how that goal is to be accomplished. This need not be means-end reasoning in the conventional sense; if, for example, our goal is the just resolution of a conflict, we must determine what constitutes justice in these particular circumstances.
Here we are engaged in ethical inquiry, and are not asking a purely instrumental question. But if practical reasoning is correct only if it begins from a correct premise, what is it that insures the correctness of its starting point? By this he cannot mean that there is no room for reasoning about our ultimate end. For as we have seen, he gives a reasoned defense of his conception of happiness as virtuous activity.
What he must have in mind, when he says that virtue makes the goal right, is that deliberation typically proceeds from a goal that is far more specific than the goal of attaining happiness by acting virtuously. To be sure, there may be occasions when a good person approaches an ethical problem by beginning with the premise that happiness consists in virtuous activity.
But more often what happens is that a concrete goal presents itself as his starting point—helping a friend in need, or supporting a worthwhile civic project. Which specific project we set for ourselves is determined by our character. A good person starts from worthwhile concrete ends because his habits and emotional orientation have given him the ability to recognize that such goals are within reach, here and now.
Those who are defective in character may have the rational skill needed to achieve their ends—the skill Aristotle calls cleverness a23—8 —but often the ends they seek are worthless.
Aristotle's Ethics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
The cause of this deficiency lies not in some impairment in their capacity to reason—for we are assuming that they are normal in this respect—but in the training of their passions. Intellectual Virtues Since Aristotle often calls attention to the imprecision of ethical theory see e. In every practical discipline, the expert aims at a mark and uses right reason to avoid the twin extremes of excess and deficiency.
But what is this right reason, and by what standard horos is it to be determined? Aristotle says that unless we answer that question, we will be none the wiser—just as a student of medicine will have failed to master his subject if he can only say that the right medicines to administer are the ones that are prescribed by medical expertise, but has no standard other than this b18— It is not easy to understand the point Aristotle is making here.
Has he not already told us that there can be no complete theoretical guide to ethics, that the best one can hope for is that in particular situations one's ethical habits and practical wisdom will help one determine what to do? Furthermore, Aristotle nowhere announces, in the remainder of Book VI, that we have achieved the greater degree of accuracy that he seems to be looking for. The rest of this Book is a discussion of the various kinds of intellectual virtues: Aristotle explains what each of these states of mind is, draws various contrasts among them, and takes up various questions that can be raised about their usefulness.
Nor is it easy to see how his discussion of these five intellectual virtues can bring greater precision to the doctrine of the mean. We can make some progress towards solving this problem if we remind ourselves that at the beginning of the Ethics, Aristotle describes his inquiry as an attempt to develop a better understanding of what our ultimate aim should be.
The sketchy answer he gives in Book I is that happiness consists in virtuous activity. In Books II through V, he describes the virtues of the part of the soul that is rational in that it can be attentive to reason, even though it is not capable of deliberating.
But precisely because these virtues are rational only in this derivative way, they are a less important component of our ultimate end than is the intellectual virtue—practical wisdom—with which they are integrated. If what we know about virtue is only what is said in Books II through V, then our grasp of our ultimate end is radically incomplete, because we still have not studied the intellectual virtue that enables us to reason well in any given situation.
One of the things, at least, towards which Aristotle is gesturing, as he begins Book VI, is practical wisdom. This state of mind has not yet been analyzed, and that is one reason why he complains that his account of our ultimate end is not yet clear enough. But is practical wisdom the only ingredient of our ultimate end that has not yet been sufficiently discussed?
Book VI discusses five intellectual virtues, not just practical wisdom, but it is clear that at least one of these—craft knowledge—is considered only in order to provide a contrast with the others. Aristotle is not recommending that his readers make this intellectual virtue part of their ultimate aim. But what of the remaining three: Are these present in Book VI only in order to provide a contrast with practical wisdom, or is Aristotle saying that these too must be components of our goal?
He does not fully address this issue, but it is evident from several of his remarks in Book VI that he takes theoretical wisdom to be a more valuable state of mind than practical wisdom. It is strange if someone thinks that politics or practical wisdom is the most excellent kind of knowledge, unless man is the best thing in the cosmos. So it is clear that exercising theoretical wisdom is a more important component of our ultimate goal than practical wisdom.
Even so, it may still seem perplexing that these two intellectual virtues, either separately or collectively, should somehow fill a gap in the doctrine of the mean. Having read Book VI and completed our study of what these two forms of wisdom are, how are we better able to succeed in finding the mean in particular situations? The answer to this question may be that Aristotle does not intend Book VI to provide a full answer to that question, but rather to serve as a prolegomenon to an answer.
For it is only near the end of Book X that he presents a full discussion of the relative merits of these two kinds of intellectual virtue, and comments on the different degrees to which each needs to be provided with resources.
We will discuss these chapters more fully in section 10 below. One of his reasons for thinking that such a life is superior to the second-best kind of life—that of a political leader, someone who devotes himself to the exercise of practical rather than theoretical wisdom—is that it requires less external equipment a23—b7. Aristotle has already made it clear in his discussion of the ethical virtues that someone who is greatly honored by his community and commands large financial resources is in a position to exercise a higher order of ethical virtue than is someone who receives few honors and has little property.
The virtue of magnificence is superior to mere liberality, and similarly greatness of soul is a higher excellence than the ordinary virtue that has to do with honor. These qualities are discussed in IV. The grandest expression of ethical virtue requires great political power, because it is the political leader who is in a position to do the greatest amount of good for the community.
The person who chooses to lead a political life, and who aims at the fullest expression of practical wisdom, has a standard for deciding what level of resources he needs: But if one chooses instead the life of a philosopher, then one will look to a different standard—the fullest expression of theoretical wisdom—and one will need a smaller supply of these resources.
This enables us to see how Aristotle's treatment of the intellectual virtues does give greater content and precision to the doctrine of the mean. The best standard is the one adopted by the philosopher; the second-best is the one adopted by the political leader.
In either case, it is the exercise of an intellectual virtue that provides a guideline for making important quantitative decisions. This supplement to the doctrine of the mean is fully compatible with Aristotle's thesis that no set of rules, no matter how long and detailed, obviates the need for deliberative and ethical virtue. If one chooses the life of a philosopher, one should keep the level of one's resources high enough to secure the leisure necessary for such a life, but not so high that one's external equipment becomes a burden and a distraction rather than an aid to living well.
That gives one a firmer idea of how to hit the mean, but it still leaves the details to be worked out. The philosopher will need to determine, in particular situations, where justice lies, how to spend wisely, when to meet or avoid a danger, and so on.
All of the normal difficulties of ethical life remain, and they can be solved only by means of a detailed understanding of the particulars of each situation. Having philosophy as one's ultimate aim does not put an end to the need for developing and exercising practical wisdom and the ethical virtues.
We began our discussion of these qualities in section 4. Like the akratic, an enkratic person experiences a feeling that is contrary to reason; but unlike the akratic, he acts in accordance with reason. His defect consists solely in the fact that, more than most people, he experiences passions that conflict with his rational choice.
The akratic person has not only this defect, but has the further flaw that he gives in to feeling rather than reason more often than the average person. Aristotle distinguishes two kinds of akrasia: The person who is weak goes through a process of deliberation and makes a choice; but rather than act in accordance with his reasoned choice, he acts under the influence of a passion.
By contrast, the impetuous person does not go through a process of deliberation and does not make a reasoned choice; he simply acts under the influence of a passion. At the time of action, the impetuous person experiences no internal conflict. But once his act has been completed, he regrets what he has done. One could say that he deliberates, if deliberation were something that post-dated rather than preceded action; but the thought process he goes through after he acts comes too late to save him from error.
It is important to bear in mind that when Aristotle talks about impetuosity and weakness, he is discussing chronic conditions. The impetuous person is someone who acts emotionally and fails to deliberate not just once or twice but with some frequency; he makes this error more than most people do. Because of this pattern in his actions, we would be justified in saying of the impetuous person that had his passions not prevented him from doing so, he would have deliberated and chosen an action different from the one he did perform.
The two kinds of passions that Aristotle focuses on, in his treatment of akrasia, are the appetite for pleasure and anger. Either can lead to impetuosity and weakness. But Aristotle gives pride of place to the appetite for pleasure as the passion that undermines reason. We thus have these four forms of akrasia: A impetuosity caused by pleasure, B impetuosity caused by anger, C weakness caused by pleasure D weakness caused by anger. It should be noticed that Aristotle's treatment of akrasia is heavily influenced by Plato's tripartite division of the soul in the Republic.
Plato holds that either the spirited part which houses anger, as well as other emotions or the appetitive part which houses the desire for physical pleasures can disrupt the dictates of reason and result in action contrary to reason.
The same threefold division of the soul can be seen in Aristotle's approach to this topic. Although Aristotle characterizes akrasia and enkrateia in terms of a conflict between reason and feeling, his detailed analysis of these states of mind shows that what takes place is best described in a more complicated way.
For the feeling that undermines reason contains some thought, which may be implicitly general. And although in the next sentence he denies that our appetite for pleasure works in this way, he earlier had said that there can be a syllogism that favors pursuing enjoyment: Perhaps what he has in mind is that pleasure can operate in either way: By contrast, anger always moves us by presenting itself as a bit of general, although hasty, reasoning.
But of course Aristotle does not mean that a conflicted person has more than one faculty of reason. Rather his idea seems to be that in addition to our full-fledged reasoning capacity, we also have psychological mechanisms that are capable of a limited range of reasoning. When feeling conflicts with reason, what occurs is better described as a fight between feeling-allied-with-limited-reasoning and full-fledged reason.
Part of us—reason—can remove itself from the distorting influence of feeling and consider all relevant factors, positive and negative. But another part of us—feeling or emotion—has a more limited field of reasoning—and sometimes it does not even make use of it. Anger is a pathos whether it is weak or strong; so too is the appetite for bodily pleasures.
And he clearly indicates that it is possible for an akratic person to be defeated by a weak pathos—the kind that most people would easily be able to control a9—b So the general explanation for the occurrence of akrasia cannot be that the strength of a passion overwhelms reason.
Aristotle should therefore be acquitted of an accusation made against him by J. Plato and Aristotle, he says, collapsed all succumbing to temptation into losing control of ourselves—a mistake illustrated by this example: I am very partial to ice cream, and a bombe is served divided into segments corresponding one to one with the persons at High Table: I am tempted to help myself to two segments and do so, thus succumbing to temptation and even conceivably but why necessarily?
But do I lose control of myself? Do I raven, do I snatch the morsels from the dish and wolf them down, impervious to the consternation of my colleagues? Not a bit of it. We often succumb to temptation with calm and even with finesse. What is most remarkable about Aristotle's discussion of akrasia is that he defends a position close to that of Socrates. When he first introduces the topic of akrasia, and surveys some of the problems involved in understanding this phenomenon, he says b25—8 that Socrates held that there is no akrasia, and he describes this as a thesis that clearly conflicts with the appearances phainomena.
Since he says that his goal is to preserve as many of the appearances as possible b2—7it may come as a surprise that when he analyzes the conflict between reason and feeling, he arrives at the conclusion that in a way Socrates was right after all b13— For, he says, the person who acts against reason does not have what is thought to be unqualified knowledge; in a way he has knowledge, but in a way does not.
Aristotle explains what he has in mind by comparing akrasia to the condition of other people who might be described as knowing in a way, but not in an unqualified way. His examples are people who are asleep, mad, or drunk; he also compares the akratic to a student who has just begun to learn a subject, or an actor on the stage a10— All of these people, he says, can utter the very words used by those who have knowledge; but their talk does not prove that they really have knowledge, strictly speaking.
These analogies can be taken to mean that the form of akrasia that Aristotle calls weakness rather than impetuosity always results from some diminution of cognitive or intellectual acuity at the moment of action. The akratic says, at the time of action, that he ought not to indulge in this particular pleasure at this time. But does he know or even believe that he should refrain? Aristotle might be taken to reply: He has some degree of recognition that he must not do this now, but not full recognition.
His feeling, even if it is weak, has to some degree prevented him from completely grasping or affirming the point that he should not do this. And so in a way Socrates was right.
When reason remains unimpaired and unclouded, its dictates will carry us all the way to action, so long as we are able to act. But Aristotle's agreement with Socrates is only partial, because he insists on the power of the emotions to rival, weaken or bypass reason. Emotion challenges reason in all three of these ways.
In both the akratic and the enkratic, it competes with reason for control over action; even when reason wins, it faces the difficult task of having to struggle with an internal rival. Second, in the akratic, it temporarily robs reason of its full acuity, thus handicapping it as a competitor. It is not merely a rival force, in these cases; it is a force that keeps reason from fully exercising its power.
And third, passion can make someone impetuous; here its victory over reason is so powerful that the latter does not even enter into the arena of conscious reflection until it is too late to influence action.
Alternate Readings of Aristotle on Akrasia 8.
Pleasure Aristotle frequently emphasizes the importance of pleasure to human life and therefore to his study of how we should live see for example a7—20 and b3—a16but his full-scale examination of the nature and value of pleasure is found in two places: It is odd that pleasure receives two lengthy treatments; no other topic in the Ethics is revisited in this way. Book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics is identical to Book VI of the Eudemian Ethics; for unknown reasons, the editor of the former decided to include within it both the treatment of pleasure that is unique to that work X.
The two accounts are broadly similar. They agree about the value of pleasure, defend a theory about its nature, and oppose competing theories. Aristotle holds that a happy life must include pleasure, and he therefore opposes those who argue that pleasure is by its nature bad. He insists that there are other pleasures besides those of the senses, and that the best pleasures are the ones experienced by virtuous people who have sufficient resources for excellent activity.
Book VII offers a brief account of what pleasure is and is not. It is not a process but an unimpeded activity of a natural state a7— Aristotle does not elaborate on what a natural state is, but he obviously has in mind the healthy condition of the body, especially its sense faculties, and the virtuous condition of the soul. Little is said about what it is for an activity to be unimpeded, but Aristotle does remind us that virtuous activity is impeded by the absence of a sufficient supply of external goods b17— One might object that people who are sick or who have moral deficiencies can experience pleasure, even though Aristotle does not take them to be in a natural state.
He has two strategies for responding. First, when a sick person experiences some degree of pleasure as he is being restored to health, the pleasure he is feeling is caused by the fact that he is no longer completely ill. Some small part of him is in a natural state and is acting without impediment b35—6. Second, Aristotle is willing to say that what seems pleasant to some people may in fact not be pleasant b31—2just as what tastes bitter to an unhealthy palate may not be bitter.
To call something a pleasure is not only to report a state of mind but also to endorse it to others. Aristotle's analysis of the nature of pleasure is not meant to apply to every case in which something seems pleasant to someone, but only to activities that really are pleasures.
All of these are unimpeded activities of a natural state. It follows from this conception of pleasure that every instance of pleasure must be good to some extent. For how could an unimpeded activity of a natural state be bad or a matter of indifference? On the other hand, Aristotle does not mean to imply that every pleasure should be chosen. He briefly mentions the point that pleasures compete with each other, so that the enjoyment of one kind of activity impedes other activities that cannot be carried out at the same time a20— His point is simply that although some pleasures may be good, they are not worth choosing when they interfere with other activities that are far better.
This point is developed more fully in Ethics X. The pleasure of recovering from an illness, for example, is bad without qualification—meaning that it is not one of the pleasures one would ideally choose, if one could completely control one's circumstances.
Although it really is a pleasure and so something can be said in its favor, it is so inferior to other goods that ideally one ought to forego it.
Nonetheless, it is a pleasure worth having—if one adds the qualification that it is only worth having in undesirable circumstances. The pleasure of recovering from an illness is good, because some small part of oneself is in a natural state and is acting without impediment; but it can also be called bad, if what one means by this is that one should avoid getting into a situation in which one experiences that pleasure.
Aristotle indicates several times in VII. Here he is influenced by an idea expressed in the opening line of the Ethics: Plants and non-human animals seek to reproduce themselves because that is their way of participating in an unending series, and this is the closest they can come to the ceaseless thinking of the unmoved mover.
Aristotle makes this point in several of his works see for example De Anima a23—b7and in Ethics X. He will elaborate on these points in X. Human happiness does not consist in every kind of pleasure, but it does consist in one kind of pleasure—the pleasure felt by a human being who engages in theoretical activity and thereby imitates the pleasurable thinking of god. Book X offers a much more elaborate account of what pleasure is and what it is not.
It is not a process, because processes go through developmental stages: By contrast, pleasure, like seeing and many other activities, is not something that comes into existence through a developmental process.
If I am enjoying a conversation, for example, I do not need to wait until it is finished in order to feel pleased; I take pleasure in the activity all along the way. The defining nature of pleasure is that it is an activity that accompanies other activities, and in some sense brings them to completion. Pleasure occurs when something within us, having been brought into good condition, is activated in relation to an external object that is also in good condition.
Aristotle on Becoming Good: Habituation, Reflection, and Perception
The pleasure of drawing, for example, requires both the development of drawing ability and an object of attention that is worth drawing. But the theory proposed in the later Book brings out a point that had received too little attention earlier: It is not enough to say that it is what happens when we are in good condition and are active in unimpeded circumstances; one must add to that point the further idea that pleasure plays a certain role in complementing something other than itself.
Drawing well and the pleasure of drawing well always occur together, and so they are easy to confuse, but Aristotle's analysis in Book X emphasizes the importance of making this distinction. He says that pleasure completes the activity that it accompanies, but then adds, mysteriously, that it completes the activity in the manner of an end that is added on. In the translation of W. It is unclear what thought is being expressed here, but perhaps Aristotle is merely trying to avoid a possible misunderstanding: The latter might be taken to mean that the activity accompanied by pleasure has not yet reached a sufficiently high level of excellence, and that the role of pleasure is to bring it to the point of perfection.
Aristotle does not deny that when we take pleasure in an activity we get better at it, but when he says that pleasure completes an activity by supervening on it, like the bloom that accompanies those who have achieved the highest point of physical beauty, his point is that the activity complemented by pleasure is already perfect, and the pleasure that accompanies it is a bonus that serves no further purpose.
Taking pleasure in an activity does help us improve at it, but enjoyment does not cease when perfection is achieved—on the contrary, that is when pleasure is at its peak. That is when it reveals most fully what it is: We should take note of a further difference between these two discussions: In Book X, he makes the point that pleasure is a good but not the good. He cites and endorses an argument given by Plato in the Philebus: If we imagine a life filled with pleasure and then mentally add wisdom to it, the result is made more desirable.
But the good is something that cannot be improved upon in this way. Therefore pleasure is not the good b23— By contrast, in Book VII Aristotle strongly implies that the pleasure of contemplation is the good, because in one way or another all living beings aim at this sort of pleasure. Aristotle observes in Book X that what all things aim at is good b35—a1 ; significantly, he falls short of endorsing the argument that since all aim at pleasure, it must be the good.
Book VII makes the point that pleasures interfere with each other, and so even if all kinds of pleasures are good, it does not follow that all of them are worth choosing. One must make a selection among pleasures by determining which are better. But how is one to make this choice? Book VII does not say, but in Book X, Aristotle holds that the selection of pleasures is not to be made with reference to pleasure itself, but with reference to the activities they accompany.
Since activities differ with respect to goodness and badness, some being worth choosing, others worth avoiding, and others neither, the same is true of pleasures as well. A pleasure's goodness derives from the goodness of its associated activity.
And surely the reason why pleasure is not the criterion to which we should look in making these decisions is that it is not the good.
The standard we should use in making comparisons between rival options is virtuous activity, because that has been shown to be identical to happiness. That is why Aristotle says that what is judged pleasant by a good man really is pleasant, because the good man is the measure of things a15— He does not mean that the way to lead our lives is to search for a good man and continually rely on him to tell us what is pleasurable.
Rather, his point is that there is no way of telling what is genuinely pleasurable and therefore what is most pleasurable unless we already have some other standard of value.
Aristotle's discussion of pleasure thus helps confirm his initial hypothesis that to live our lives well we must focus on one sort of good above all others: It is the good in terms of which all other goods must be understood. Aristotle's analysis of friendship supports the same conclusion.
Although Aristotle is interested in classifying the different forms that friendship takes, his main theme in Books VIII and IX is to show the close relationship between virtuous activity and friendship. He is vindicating his conception of happiness as virtuous activity by showing how satisfying are the relationships that a virtuous person can normally expect to have.
His taxonomy begins with the premise that there are three main reasons why one person might like someone else. One might like someone because he is good, or because he is useful, or because he is pleasant. And so there are three bases for friendships, depending on which of these qualities binds friends together. When two individuals recognize that the other person is someone of good character, and they spend time with each other, engaged in activities that exercise their virtues, then they form one kind of friendship.
If they are equally virtuous, their friendship is perfect. If, however, there is a large gap in their moral development as between a parent and a small child, or between a husband and a wifethen although their relationship may be based on the other person's good character, it will be imperfect precisely because of their inequality.
The imperfect friendships that Aristotle focuses on, however, are not unequal relationships based on good character. Rather, they are relationships held together because each individual regards the other as the source of some advantage to himself or some pleasure he receives. Aristotle does not mean to suggest that unequal relations based on the mutual recognition of good character are defective in these same ways.
Rather, when he says that unequal relationships based on character are imperfect, his point is that people are friends in the fullest sense when they gladly spend their days together in shared activities, and this close and constant interaction is less available to those who are not equal in their moral development. When Aristotle begins his discussion of friendship, he introduces a notion that is central to his understanding of this phenomenon: Does such good will exist in all three kinds of friendship, or is it confined to relationships based on virtue?
At first, Aristotle leaves open the first of these two possibilities. But in fact, as Aristotle continues to develop his taxonomy, he does not choose to exploit this possibility.